American secrets and bizarre rules
Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
Does a secret stop being a secret when millions of people know it? Yes, says common sense. No, says the U.S. government, whose reaction to the WikiLeaks dump of classified diplomatic cables portrays a bureaucracy inhabiting a logic-free world all of its own.
Writers thinking of producing 21st century novels emulating the works of Franz Kafka are well advised to closely follow Washington’s problems in coming to grips with what kind of information should be open to whom and when.
Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can see the 1,500-odd classified cables released so far by the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks, which holds more than 250,000 messages exchanged between the U.S. Department of State and American embassies around the world. Five news organizations, including the New York Times, have reported on the cables in great detail. But the fact that the information is in the public domain makes no difference to the government’s view of its classified nature.
So, government workers were told, in the first week of the WikiLeaks data dump, that “unauthorized disclosure of classified documents (whether in print, on a blog or on websites) do not alter the documents’ classified status or automatically result in declassification of the documents. To the contrary, classified information, whether or not already posted on public websites or disclosed to the media, remains classified, and must be treated as such by federal employees and contractors, until it is declassified by an appropriate U.S. government authority.”
There’s an authority specifically set up for the declassification of documents, under an executive order President Barack Obama signed a year ago. It’s called the National Declassification Center and it is dealing with a backlog of more than 400 million (yes, 400 million) classified documents. They date back 25 years or more and are kept in cardboard boxes holding 2,500 pages each in storage vaults the size of several football fields at the U.S. National Archives in College Park, Maryland.
The classified-stays-classified view of documents made public has produced an element of anguish among federal employees, including the more than 200,000 who work under the umbrella of the sprawling Department of Homeland Security. One of its workers expressed the vexation of many in an email to Steven Aftergood, a veteran anti-secrecy campaigner who puts out a weekly newsletter, Secrecy News, for the Federation of American Scientists.
The email, from a DHS employee whose work involves dealing with senior foreign officials, noted that “if it is discovered that we have accessed a classified WikiLeaks cable on our personal computers, that will be a security violation. So, my grandmother would be allowed to access the cables, but not me. This seems ludicrous.”
Not to be outdone by Homeland Security, the U.S. Air Force went a step further this week and blocked employees from using work computers to view the websites of the New York Times and other news organizations that have posted WikiLeaks cables. Those who tried saw “Access Denied: Internet usage is logged and monitored” splashed across their screens, a notice that brings to mind the Chinese government’s efforts to block its citizens from material deemed inappropriate.
Denying access to information that virtually everyone else in the world can see has been accompanied by warnings to students at several colleges to refrain from commenting on WikiLeaks and its cables on social websites such as Facebook or Twitter. Doing so might jeopardize their chances of future employment with the government, said messages from the schools’ offices of career services.
Self-censorship in the country that prides itself on its commitment to free speech and openness, or prudent advice in a climate of post-September 11 obsession with secrecy?
One of the casualties of WikiLeaks and the government’s fierce reaction to them will almost certainly be the effort Obama launched a year ago to curb America’s secrecy inflation. The executive order that created the National Declassification Center also laid out in 13,000 words and great detail guidelines on classifying information. One of the novel features of the order was that classified documents must include the name of the person who classified them. That was meant to curb such excesses as slapping “secret” labels on, for example, summaries of foreign press reports.
The opening paragraph of the order, dated December 29, 2009, says: “Our democratic principles require that the American people be informed of the activities of their Government. Also, our Nation’s progress depends on the free flow of information both within the Government and to the American people.”
How does that square with the present attempts to prevent large numbers of Americans from looking at information available to much of the rest of the world?
(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)